Call 201-963-9524 / 718-972-5449   Fax 718-972-6307

Was Yosef on the Spectrum?

Understanding Joseph Through Torah, Midrash, and Classical Jewish Sources

By Samuel J. Levine

Yosef's behaviors, interpersonal relationships, and personal development are often difficult to understand, and at times seem to defy explanation. This book offers a coherent and cohesive reading of the well-known Bible story, presenting a portrait of Yosef as an individual on the autism spectrum. Viewed through this lens, Yosef emerges as a more familiar and less enigmatic individual, exhibiting both strengths and weaknesses commonly associated with autism spectrum disorder.


About the Author:

Samuel J. Levine is a Professor of Law and Director of the Jewish Law Institute at Touro Law Center. He has served as the Beznos Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University College of Law, and he has taught at the law schools of Bar-Ilan, Fordham, Pepperdine, and St. John's Universities.

Availability: In stock!



~Review by Alan Jay Gerber, Kosher Bookworm, The Jewish Star
This week’s Torah reading, Vayigash, reflects the narrative of the reconciliation of Yosef and his brothers, and the reunion with his father, Yaakov. There is much to be said of this saga. One very timely book on this biblical legacy is Was Yosef On The Spectrum? Understanding Yosef Through Torah, Midrash, and Classical Jewish Sources [Urim Publications, 2019] by Prof. Samuel Levine.

Dr. Levine is the director of the Jewish Law Institute at Touro Law Center. He also served as the Beznos Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University College of Law, and also taught at Bar-Ilan, Fordham and at St. John’s Universities.

In his introduction Dr. Levine tells us the following: “The story of Yosef presents some of the most challenging questions of all biblical narratives … Leading commentators are repeatedly puzzled both by Yosef’s actions and by the events that surround him: from Yosef’s bitter interchanges with his brothers which his father Yaakov is apparently unable to mediate, to the events in the Land of Egypt where Yosef finds both failure and remarkable success.”

The author’s narrative throughout the rest of this book follows through on this theme of Yosef’s experiences and of how his family conducted themselves in reaction to the varied events they experienced.

One telling response to this book’s narrative was by the distinguished talmid chacham Rav Menachem Mendel Blachman, the senior Ra’m at Yeshiva Keren B’Yavneh, who tells us the following:

“Sam Levine was my student in yeshiva, and I have known him for decades as he has continued to study and teach Jewish law. I enjoyed his book on Yosef, which presents a thoughtful and creative literary analysis of the story, based on a close reading of the Chumash, midrashim, and classical meforshim.”

To this approbation, I wish to bring to your learned attention the last section of this study. It tells it all, in the author’s words, about my own opinion of his work:

“And Yosef said to them, ‘Do not fear . . . though you have intended to do me harm, G-d has intended it for good … to allow a large nation to live. And now, do not fear, I will provide for you and your children.’ And he consoled them and spoke to their heart.

“Yosef’s thoughtful, gracious, and heartfelt response to his brothers, concluding this episode — and with it, concluding the story of Yosef — may offer a message of optimism for individuals on the spectrum, their families, and their friends. When Yosef’s brothers tell him of Yaakov’s supposed command that he not take revenge against them, Yosef explains that he has come to terms with what they did, that although they intended to cause him harm, it was all part of G-d’s plan for their success. He assures them that they have no reason to fear, and that he will continue to provide for them and for their children.

“Though Yosef has previously spoken to his brothers in this way, likewise in an effort to alleviate their guilt and fears, in the past his words have proven less than fully effective, in part because of his seemingly self-serving and self-referential tone.

“This time, however, the interaction between Yosef and his brothers is different, because now Yosef is different. Following the quotation of Yosef’s words to his brothers, the verse concludes with the declaration that Yosef ‘consoled them and spoke to their heart.’ The text — perhaps tellingly and, in this reading, fittingly — does not convey the content of Yosef’s final words, as the content is not really important.

“More significantly, the verse emphasizes, Yosef has indeed learned to overcome his condition, to let go of past insults and indignities, to understand others, including his peers, and to talk to them in a manner that shows he relates to them. Yosef now has the ability to speak to his brothers in a way that can have a real effect on their feelings — finally comforting them — because he now has the ability to see their perspective and to touch their heart. This is now the true Yosef, outside of the trappings of the persona of Tzafnat Pane’ach, outside of the protective watch of either Pharaoh or Yaakov, truly reconciled with his brothers.

“At the conclusion of the story, the reconciliation is complete. Yosef has the confidence to put his trust in his brothers to insure that he is buried in the land that was promised to their fathers.”

Hopefully, after considering the above, you will have the opportunity to read this book and come to better understand the deeper meaning of Yosef’s legacy. (Posted on 12/13/2018)
~Review by Rabbi Johnny Solomon
In general, I am not drawn to Torah commentaries that seek to frame biblical personalities in the language of today, at the cost of understanding their words and actions as expressed by the language of the Torah. Given this, when I received a copy of Samuel J. Levine’s 141-page book titled ‘Was Yosef on the Spectrum?’, who is a Professor of Law and who also has rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva University, I have to say that I opened the book as a very cautious reader.

However, I then read the numerous approbations on the opening page of ‘Was Yosef on the Spectrum?’ from scholars including Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Blachman, and Dr. Erica Brown. Though each drew their own conclusion – with some being more convinced than others with some of Professor Levine’s conclusions – their knowledge of the author and their remarks about his scholarship communicated that this is a book written with a profound regard for the Torah’s words and teachings and considerable respect and admiration for Yosef, and so I read on with a (slightly) more open mind.

In simple terms, ‘Was Yosef on the Spectrum?’ is a peirush (commentary) on the Parshiot of Yosef (Vayeshev, Miketz, Vayigash & Vayechi). Yet, unlike all previous commentaries that offer individual insights on individual verses and episodes ‘without providing a cohesive understanding of the story as a whole and the puzzling ways Yosef interacts with others’, this book ‘attempts to achieve a coherent and cohesive reading of the story’ while offering ‘a plausible understanding of Yosef’s behaviours towards others and those of others towards him’ which is, according to Professor Levine, that ‘the biblical text paints a portrait of Yosef consistent with an individual on the autism spectrum’.

As the author explains in a footnote early on in the book, ‘it should be emphasised that this portrait of Yosef is not a simplistic and ahistorical labelling based on a superficial reading of a few events’. Instead, it ‘represents a carefully documented understanding of Yosef, based on dozens of statements in the biblical text and hundreds of comments in classical Jewish sources’.

Over the ensuing 11 chapters Professor Levine interweaves a close reading of the Torah text with the insights of classic Torah commentaries along with observations about the behaviour and development of those on the autism spectrum. As would be expected, some of the insights and explanations are more compelling than others. Nevertheless, through reading this delightful book – which is considerably enriched by the detailed footnotes provided by the author – I gained a much deeper understanding of the emotional challenges faced by Yosef, I was sensitized to the many different and at times conflicting messages that emerge from the Torah text and Midrashic readings in the Yosef stories, and I took pause to consider on a very sincere and very real level the struggles and difficulties faced by those on the autism spectrum.

In terms of the insights found in ‘Was Yosef on the Spectrum?’ here are just a few examples from the opening chapters relating to Parshat Vayeshev:

1. The Torah describes Yosef as a ‘na’ar’ – a young lad (Bereishit 37:2). However, as the Midrash points out, it is strange that Yosef – who we are told was 17 years old – was described with a term generally reserved for a young child. The Midrash – of which only parts are cited by Rashi – explains that Yosef was deemed a na’ar because he engaged in childish activities such as fixing his fair, tending with his eyes and lifting his heels (which may be a description of toe walking). As Professor Levine observes, though these may be unusual behaviours for a typical seventeen year old, they are common among children on the spectrum.

2. We are told that Yosef delivers a negative report to Yaakov about his brothers even though it seems clear that this causes greater tension in Yosef’s interactions in his family. Moreover, Yosef continues to communicate his dreams to his brothers, even though this leads to their increased hatred. As Professor Levine explains, such behaviour shows a ‘failure to consider the consequences of his actions’ and ‘like many on the spectrum, in scenarios that call for diplomacy or discretion, Yosef bluntly speaks the truth as he sees it, even to his own detriment’.

3. Much has been said by the classic commentaries about the fact that Yosef was a ‘ben zekunim’ – a child of Yaakov’s old age (Bereishit 37:3). However, given the fact that Yosef was not born much later than the other brothers, Onkelos, Radak and Ramban explain this term as a reference to Yosef’s wisdom beyond his years. Yet, as Abrabanel notes, this depiction ‘seems to directly contradict the description of Yosef as a childish na’ar’. Given all this Professor Levine observes that, ‘it is quite common for children on the spectrum to possess advanced cognitive abilities, but at the same time to engage in behaviours that appear childish, immature, and socially inappropriate leading them to be marginalized and ostracized by others’. Moreover, ‘children on the spectrum often exhibit inappropriate social behaviours primarily when they are with their peers, while they maintain – or appear to maintain – a more mature, adult-like, and even wise persona when they encounter adults’.

4.In terms of Yosef’s Ktonet Passim (coat of many colours), Professor Levine cites the interpretation of Chizkuni that this was an elegant coat given by Yaakov ‘l’phayso’ – to appease him and ‘to resolve the conflicts that have arisen between Yosef and his brothers’ and indulge him with extra love and attention. On this point Professor Levine observes that ‘adults often design special accommodations for the needs of a child on the spectrum’. But ‘although these efforts are well-intentioned, and when properly implemented may prove effective, they may also prove futile or even counterproductive when they are not carefully coordinated with the child’s peers’.

5. We are told that the brothers ‘lo yachlu dabro shalom’ – they could not speak with him peaceably (Bereishit 37:4) which is explained by the Midrash to mean that when Yosef would approach and greet his brothers they did not answer him, or according to another Midrash, when Yosef would approach his brothers they would turn their faces away from him. As Professor Levine explains, ‘like many children on the spectrum, Yosef may be particularly vulnerable to less open forms of teasing and marginalisation, finding it difficult to read the nonverbal cues that are apparent to others’. Ultimately, ‘by ignoring Yosef, or pretending that they do not see him approaching, the brothers succeed in avoiding any communication with him, while at the same time sending a message amongst themselves, affirming both his disability and their intention to continue to marginalize him in the future’.

As can be seen in these examples – as well as the many others found in ‘Was Yosef on the Spectrum?’, Professor Levine pays close attention to the Torah text and the insights of classical Torah commentaries, and though somewhat cautious in labelling or ‘diagnosing’ Yosef, he makes a strong and consistent case that Yosef was on the spectrum.

As mentioned, I am not drawn to Torah commentaries that seek to frame biblical personalities in the language of today at the cost of understanding their words and actions as expressed by the language of the Torah. Yet what I found in ‘Was Yosef on the Spectrum?’ was a considered and refreshing reading of the Yosef stories showing sensitivity and understanding towards the Torah text, and towards Yosef specifically.

For some people, this book is a game-changer in terms of how they relate to Yosef, while for others, it may just raise questions which they may wish to address in other ways. Personally, I am sufficiently taken by a sufficient number of insights that I will never look at Yosef in the same way again. Still, whether you agree with some, all or none of Professor Levine’s reading, ‘Was Yosef on the Spectrum?’ sensitises the reader to many fascinating elements of the Yosef stories and serves to increase awareness and sensitivity about the challenges faced by those on the autism spectrum. (Posted on 12/3/2018)
~Review by Dr. Deena Zimmerman, author of A Lifetime Companion to the Laws of Jewish Family Life
"This work represents a deeply researched close reading of the story of Yosef. Readers will experience a thought provoking analysis of Yosef's personality and a window into the lives of those on the highly functioning end of the autistic spectrum and their families. Recommended reading!" (Posted on 10/22/2018)
~Review by Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation
"Levine presents a compelling portrait of Yosef.... A sensitive reader will never look at Yosef, or individuals with autism, in the same way again.... This book will spark conversation and awareness, and hopefully change attitudes toward individuals with disabilities...." (Posted on 10/22/2018)
~Review by -George Rohr, Noted Philanthropist
"As he lays out his extraordinarily bold, profoundly thought-provoking hypothesis, Levine's deep love for and highly nuanced understanding of his subject leaps from every page." (Posted on 10/22/2018)
~Review by Dr. Erica Brown, author of Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet
"Sam Levine has created a fresh, thoughtful and new perspective on a classic story.... He sensitizes us to what it means to live and lead on the spectrum...for Joseph and for all those who...struggle yet succeed." (Posted on 10/22/2018)
~Review by Rav Menachem Mendel Blachman, Senior Ra"m at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh
"Sam Levine was my student in yeshiva, and I have known him for decades....I enjoyed his book on Yosef, which presents a thoughtful and creative literary analysis of the story, based on a close reading of the Chumash, midrashim, and classical meforshim." (Posted on 10/22/2018)
~Review by Rabbi Dr. Ira Bedzow, Director of Biomedical Ethics and Humanities, NY Medical College
"Levine's interpretation of Yosef's life through the lens of contemporary psychology is innovative and provides a way for readers to find personal and practical insights for how to approach neurodiversity in the Jewish community today. While the topic is potentially controversial, Levine treats it with scholarship and respect and comes up with a very strong reading of the narrative. It is an interesting take and a worthwhile read." (Posted on 10/22/2018)
~Review by Rabbi Yitzchok Alderstein, author of Nesivos Shalom
"Prof. Levine is both a ben Torah and an accomplished scholar. His work is an act of both courage and love of Yosef. Courage - because some will criticize him for trying to diminish the stature of one of the shivah ro'im, when his intention was the very opposite. Love - because in order to address the difficulties many have raised with aspects of Yosef's behavior, he worked thoroughly and painstakingly with traditional sources to advance his theory, rather than ignore them as so many others do. Whether the reader accepts Prof. Levine's thesis or remains skeptical (as I do), we must imagine Yosef smiling at someone who labored so hard to defend him." (Posted on 10/22/2018)

Write Your Own Review

Only registered users can write reviews. Please, log in or register



Other people marked this product with these tags:

Use spaces to separate tags. Use single quotes (') for phrases.

Additional Info

Additional Info

ISBN 978-160-280-322-0
Pages 141
Format Hardcover
SKU urim1528
Publisher Urim Publications